“Smells like fresh paint in here,” my date remarks to our server on our first visit here, in early September.
“Oh, Everything’s fresh in here” is our server’s clever comeback line.
Turns out she’s clever all round: making us feel welcome, knowing well the menu, speaking with intelligence about our options, recommending a wine with enthusiasm and sound advice.
Absinthe smells a bit like fresh paint because it’s new – at least new to this address, having recently moved from its small hang out on Holland Avenue to this larger, ex-Schnitzel-House space on Wellington Street, cleverly close to the new home of the Great Canadian Theatre Company.
It’s an expansively handsome room, in a dark, broody, uncluttered sort of way. “ABSINTHE” and the flat, slotted, pointy spoon that is the emblem of this restaurant, have been spelled out in gold paint on the murky emerald-green wall behind the bar. The balance of walls, pumpkin-coloured, are hung with mirrors. The floors are bare, dark wood; same for the tables, low lit with candles. The chairs and benches are black and leatherish. The room is a long, wide rectangle, left long and wide and uninterruptedly rectangular. It can be loud. Very loud. Between the bare walls, bare floor, high and naked ceiling, the conversations, music and laughter ricochet around the place. It may be exactly what you want, or it may be exhausting, depending on your mood. The other little issue with the new space is the wide front door. On a chilly evening, the wind assaults your legs. Plans may well be afoot to deal with it. Curtains, or a second door, something. Before January would be nice.
Still in charge at Absinthe is chef/owner Patrick Garland. His Autumn menu is short, seasonally sound and big on assertive flavours. A tomato salad is lovely – served warm with a thick and oily purée of basil and a tomato coulis, and oozing Brie cheese around slices of flavourful heirloom tomatoes. I like the tuna ceviche taco, and the “seafood trio” which unites a grilled scallop with a perky mango salsa, a shrimp with some sauce Gribiche (hard cooked eggs, mustard, pickles, vinegar) and a smoked and fresh salmon rillette set on a dollop of rémoulade (think tartar sauce). Spiced squash soup has a bright surface of red and green oil and a good hit of spice, but the squash flavour is weak, the soup itself a bit watery.
Nothing weak in Absinthe’s Caesar salad though. The anchovies and mustard, Worcestershire and lemon are all in excellent form, and freshly grated parmigiano adds to the substantial richness of the dressing. The house herbed bread is toasted up for croutons. We debate the missing bacon. I argue it doesn’t need it. My date’s a bacon-in-Caesar man. He’s also a steak-must-follow-Caesar man, but he finds his cut of beef tough, bits of it stringy.
Two weeks later I return for the steak-frites, Absinthe’s signature dish ($18). This time it’s perfect: the crust darkly seared, the slices tender, very flavourful, sliced thinly and against the grain. Garland calls it a “drop filet” which I find puzzling, and by which I take it he means a skirt steak, or a hanger steak – one that needs some loving before it’s cooked, and when cooked past medium rare, is not something you want to eat. Marinated, seared to rare, left to rest, sliced on the diagonal, it’s a wonderful, flavourful gem. In a tenderloin world, it’s a brave cut to feature: how do you discourage someone who wants theirs cooked medium-well without being nasty about it? It comes with good frites, an aioli with horseradish pow and green beans, smeared in roasted onions and garlic.
Less manly, more delicate, the red snapper’s a winner, served with a crepe studded with peppers and onions. Quail is stuffed with spinach, wrapped in bacon and scented with rosemary, and the result is a moist and juicy bird with a sound flavour. I enjoy the stuffed baby zucchini that comes with duck. I like it more than the duck, which is tough.
The house profiteroles are filled up with scoops of homemade ice cream and set in a dark pool of chocolate sauce. There’s a satisfying chocolate cake and a solid crème brulée. Only the coffee is weak. There is, of course, a stronger ending: you might want a lesson in the rituals of drinking absinthe and put that perforated spoon to good use.